Getting comfortable with discomfort, and other things I learned as a small agency
Sharon Napier, keynote at Ad Age's first Small Agency Conference, looks back on the last decade
Sharon Napier, keynote at Ad Age's first Small Agency Conference, looks back on the last decade.
The 10th annual Ad Age Small Agency Conference is set to begin, and while it’s always a special event, it feels a little extra special this year. We’re back in New Orleans, where it all began. But the landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. Holding companies are contracting, consultancies are buying agencies, and brands are taking more and more work in-house.
Where does that leave small agencies? Without the fat of a sprawling holding company, small agencies can be 100 percent nimble and speedy, bringing fresh thinking and fire—and marketers want that. Procter & Gamble is attending this year’s Small Agency Conference for that very reason: to seek out a small agency partner to add to its roster.
Small agencies have come a long way in the last decade, especially in smaller markets. When we were first starting out, we didn’t have the budgets of our big-city cousins who often focused on TV first. We built a successful business in a secondary market by doing integrated work and thinking collaboratively—before it was the thing to do. We were scrappy and we were all in. As we like to say, business is personal. Because when you care more, you do more, you invest more. It’s a powerful thing.
Ad Age saw this power long before anyone else when they started the Small Agency Conference and put shops like ours on the national stage. Having been given this opportunity, let’s pledge to stop making excuses—about our size, our geography, or who we are. Because ideas are still at the core of this business, and great ideas can come from anywhere. Let’s seize this moment, and use it to harness our power and learn from each other.
When I first keynoted this conference, I shared lessons I’d learned on growth along with the pains that come with it. Among my advice:
Find your north star, using the same strategic rigor to define your agency brand as you would for a client.
Overcome your inner control freak and trust your team. Invest in a culture that attracts and keeps the best people.
Build the plane while flying it. You can’t wait for a smooth landing. You have to create, sell and deliver ideas, all while earning client trust, winning new business and building new capabilities, at the equivalent of 30,000 feet.
I had no idea how much I’d lean on my own advice over the next decade, and how many new lessons I’d learn. Lessons like:
Grow with intention
Two years after I took that podium at the very first Ad Age Small Agency Conference, our largest client (which made up nearly half of our total revenue) filed for bankruptcy. We were left with a huge gap to fill. Short-term, we got hyper-focused on organic, incremental growth to close that gap. Long-term, we built out what we call our “10-box strategy” which includes strategies like cultivating search consultants and partnerships, and, of course, prospecting. Along the way, we made two strategic acquisitions which allowed us to fortify the agency and build new offerings. We also joined Project Worldwide, a global network of independent agencies, which gave us the ability to scale. In many ways, we’re still building the plane while flying it—but defining a clear path for growth has set us up for durability even when the skies inevitably get turbulent.
Pitch less, win more
Our next ah-hah moment came when we realized we needed to make the most of our resources and focus on the quality of our leads over volume. As agencies, all we have is time and talent and we need to use them wisely. We made decisions about what search consultants we work with and are careful to focus on those who are really in our corner. We never want to be the “variety” in a pitch. To be less reliant on search consultants, we invested in a pipeline and content machine that works in tandem with PR to create content that’s topical and enhances our credibility.
Don’t get comfortable
This one was huge for us. We started as an agency focused on three core offerings: brand strategy, advertising, and retail marketing. That served us well for a while, but our clients’ needs were changing, and we knew we needed to evolve. Over the last 10 years, we’ve grown to be a full-service shop by building out capabilities in response to and in anticipation of our clients’ needs. That includes: a content studio to create and produce videos in-house, PR, social, digital, and—most recently—paid media, to ensure that we are a full-service, truly integrated agency.
Today, we’re 165 people strong and in 2018 celebrated 31 percent net revenue growth over the prior year (our highest-grossing revenue year to date). While we’re certainly proud of these numbers, I’m most proud that we got there through intentional growth, even with inevitable bumps along the way, by making the most of our resources and by continuing to evolve to be the best version of ourselves.
But don’t think for a second I’ve got it all figured out. That’s why I keep going back to the Small Agency Conference—to connect with my roots and learn from disruptive agency leaders who are making their own history in this business. Whether a newbie or a vet like me, we all have stories to tell. I’d love to hear them all.
Ad Age's Small Agency Conference takes place July 30-31 in New Orleans. For information and tickets, go here.